After years of punching other people's time clocks, chef Steve Vranian is finally cooking in his own kitchen.
This is very good news. Vranian's so-easy-it's-hard brand of cooking comes by way of his mentor, California chef Jeremiah Tower. The rules are few: Buy great ingredients, combine them in fresh new ways and prepare them with as little folderol as possible. Here's the drill. You start with, say, a mesquite-burning grill. Take oysters plucked from Puget Sound, split them open, place them over the charcoal for a few moments, add a smoky tomatillo-jalapeño salsa and serve. What could be more delicious?
Or try this: Form grated potatoes into thin patties, fry them in duck fat until they're crisp and golden and put them on a plate with a barely embellished whitefish salad. Or sear plump shrimp on the grill, then cool them with a refreshing avocado-mango-mint garnish. Or how about braising deeply flavorful beef cheeks -- literally, the cow's jaw -- low and slow, until the meat falls apart at a fork's slightest pressure. Saw off an enormous hunk of the stuff, add a mellow parsnip purée and believe me, you'll never settle for stringy pot roast and starchy mashed potatoes, ever again.
That's Nick and Eddie. Outwardly, the restaurant is an homage to a former 1980s Manhattan hot spot, reincarnated alongside the spirits of the long-gone New French and Loring bars. But get past the revivalist trappings and this enterprise is clearly all about Vranian, a chef who obviously lives by another key word: restraint. What an admirable trait. (Here's another one: value. Entrees average $17, and most appetizers fall in the $5 to $7 range.)
Vranian puts the grill's attributes -- searingly high heat and sinuously smoky flavor -- to very good use. An exceptionally tasty chicken breast, the skin boasting a slight crackle, the meat marvelously juicy -- is a steal at $15, especially given the nicely bitter Swiss chard and super-crisp fries that share the plate. Salmon, meltingly succulent, stood up very well against caramelized Brussels sprouts. Minnesota-raised duck, so tender it barely needed a knife, gets the north-south treatment with a blended bed of wild rice and hominy.
A smoked paprika-cayenne-chile marinade definitely puts a spicy twist on a pan-sautéed steak; it's paired with collard greens and deliriously creamy mashed potatoes.
Sure, Vranian is flirting with the whole comfort food phenomenon, but he's not quite giving it a bear hug. Case in point: His gnocchi. Instead of potatoes, Vranian turns to choux pastry, piping it out into light little bite-size balls and drenching them in a simple béchamel; the overall effect is not unlike macaroni and cheese, only so much better. The kitchen uses the liquids from that braised beef as a base for its ruddy, spicy borscht. Oh, and did I mention the rich chopped chicken liver, spread thin on tidy slices of toast and sprinkled with bits of bacon? Heaven.
Anyone who fell hard for the former Bakery on Grand -- count me as a charter member of that club -- will be happy to learn that Vranian's business partner is Jessica Anderson, the Bakery's head baker. Anderson's soft, yeasty Parker House rolls and old-fashioned semolina loaf are the embodiment of simplicity and integrity. Ditto her short list of sweets. There's a lovable chocolate roulade and exceptional single-bite cookies. A slab of moist gingerbread is no wallflower in the flavor department, that gusto balanced by a bit of tangy crème fraîche. Her crowning achievement is a voluptuously caramel-ey butterscotch pudding finished with a splash of cream. With each spoonful -- an exercise in pure, unadulterated bliss -- Anderson just might be singlehandedly turning wallflower-esque pudding into the belle of the dessert ball. It's that good.
The room has got it going on. A long-divided vintage storefront has been seamlessly restored (by Terry Chance of St. Paul's Site Assembly), a just-right combination of salvaged details and modern embellishments. An appealing bar wraps itself around Vranian's display kitchen and a long stretch of windows look out to Loring Park, a reminder that precious few dining venues actually take advantage of the city's much-vaunted park system.
An all-white color palette can be tricky -- it's the starkness factor -- but that's not an issue here, probably because of the convivial mix of tables and booths, an enviable contemporary art collection, a few well-placed splashes of color, reliably animated people-watching and a fun-loving staff. Maybe, but I'm thinking another reason might be the killer sound system, a vehicle for a musical selection that's obviously curated within an inch of its life. Seriously, the restaurant could launch a highly profitable side business, programming iPods for the musically clueless. Where do I sign up?
This isn't a quibble-free zone. Some dishes were heavy on the salt. A few plates -- a grilled vegetable risotto, a tough pork steak -- had me stifling yawns. The not-so-large, slow-to-evolve menu might induce restlessness among regulars. Oh, and could someone please crank up the thermostat?
But while a friend patiently listened to my gripes, I found them quickly evaporating during the bliss of a relaxing noon-hour visit.
Sunlight streamed in through those tall windows, the staff was its eager-to-please self and Vranian's back-to-basics lunch menu is loaded with tempting options, including a beaut of a gruyère-and-onions-topped burger, a sturdy chicken hash topped with a delicately basted egg, a sandwich piled high with thick-cut pastrami, fantastic pork sausages over polenta. It wasn't long before I found myself boring my friend over the details of the Nick and Eddie brunch I'd enjoyed the prior weekend, gushing over the eggs baked with bits of ham, the textbook eggs Benedict and Anderson's divine twice-baked almond brioche, a much-missed standby from her old Bakery on Grand days.
"Can we please talk about something else?" sighed my friend. Sure, but not before sharing the moral of this particular story: Good things happen when you turn a kitchen over to a couple of pros.
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757